03 Nov The city is paying for more students with disabilities to attend private school. But is that helping poor families?November 3, 2016
By: Alex Zimmerman
When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would make it easier for children with disabilities whose needs aren’t met in public school to have their private school tuition funded by the city, he said the policy shift would make the special education system more equitable.
Families were put through “a very difficult and often litigious process,” de Blasio said at a2014 press conference announcing the new policy. He added that the city “needed a streamlined, parent-friendly, family-friendly, respectful approach that didn’t matter how good your lawyers were, or how much money you had to spend on lawyers.” He promised the city would scale back legal barriers that sometimes kept families from getting the city to pay for private placements.
That shift seems to have had a clear effect: As Chalkbeat reported in July, roughly 4,100 students with disabilities were funded by the city to attend private school last year, 42 percent more than in 2011. And fewer families had to fight lengthy battles for that funding: The city settled 49 percent more cases without going through a legal hearing than they did in 2011.
While some advocates see these as positive changes, exactly what kinds of families have benefitted is an open question — one that city officials say their data systems don’t allow them to answer.
In June, Chalkbeat filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for demographic breakdowns — including socioeconomic status — of students with disabilities whose private school tuition is paid for by the city. The request was an attempt to assess whether the policy was having the effect on equal access that de Blasio promised.
Nearly four months later, after repeated delays, the city has denied that request. The city said it does not collect the socioeconomic status or race of students in the database where it tracks tuition reimbursements.
The state’s open-records law “does not obligate the DOE to match data across computer storage systems,” wrote Joseph Baranello, the education department’s records access officer, in a letter. Baranello noted the city also searched for “previously created compilations of data,” but could not find any.
Baranello’s explanation is based on the state’s open-records law, which requires the city to disclose only records that it already keeps. But it does raise questions about how the city can tell if the policy is having its desired effect without clear data on the question.
Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the new policy has made it easier for families of students with disabilities to get appropriate services.
“Several offices across the DOE work closely to process these claims,” she wrote, “and we are always looking for ways to improve our tracking systems.”
Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, expressed some skepticism about the department’s response to the records request. “You would think the department would want to demonstrate the effects of the policy change,” he said. “One is always suspicious that an agency refuses what seems to be a reasonable request because they won’t like the interpretation of the records.”
Some advocates said that even if the city can’t prove that the policy is serving more low-income families, those it is serving are often having an easier time.
Rebecca Shore, who represents low-income families as litigation director at Advocates for Children, said the administration’s shift has given parents of children with disabilities a more straightforward path to private school by reducing the amount of time and money they have to commit to legal battles.
“The reality is the policy is helping those low-income parents,” she said. “Does that mean it’s equally dispersed? No.”